Real People Empty Nesting
An Interview with Helene Moccia:Finding God’s Treasure House
by Robin C. Bonner
Wanting To Do More Helene Moccia had a lot going on in her life: a loving husband, three growing boys, and a family business taking root in the community, and for years she threw herself into all of it with gusto and grace. But then, the boys grew up and went off to college, the family restaurant thrived, and Helene felt that she wanted to do more. Something different. Something lasting. Just as she was contemplating the situation, an opportunity presented itself for her to become a pen pal to a woman in prison. Helene readily agreed. Over eight years, a friendship developed, one that would lead to the foundation of “God’s Treasure House”—a faith-based “transitional living center” for women leaving prison. Helene had found her new, empty-nesting career.
Meeting with Helene Moccia is like stopping into the Four Seasons Hotel for high tea—it’s an uplifting experience. Her impeccable taste in hair, clothing, and make-up, coupled with the exquisite decor of her home, could at first give one the impression that her chosen profession was interior designer. However, Helene’s cheerful, friendly nature and willingness to open up about her role in helping incarcerated women adjust to life outside prison roles soon show her true calling. This setting provided the atmosphere for my recent interview with Helene for Empty Nest.
EN: Everyone has a unique story! How did you and Matt meet?
HM: Well, I met Matt on a blind date when I was 16. (He jokes that he was blind.) We married quite young—he was 23 and I was 19—while he was home on leave during the Vietnam War. After the war, Matt worked as a driver/salesman for Abbotts Dairies, and for 10 years, I was a freelance writer. I participated in Harriet Savitz’s workshop for ten years (Chicken Soup series, books for children and about the handicapped).
EN: Tell us about family life before God’s Treasure House.
HM: I was busy writing and raising my three sons—Matt, Steven, and Jon—when in 1981 my husband [Matt Sr.] found out he was going to lose his job. He decided to open a sandwich shop in an old train station in town (Schwenksville, PA), and it became a family business—Moccia’s Train Stop. As a result, things really changed for us: We began to spend all our time at the restaurant. No more 5:00 p.m. dinners and family evenings. Our youngest was 8 then, and the school bus dropped the kids off at the restaurant after school. The boys did their homework and ate dinner there, then helped wash the dishes. The worse part for me personally was that I needed to give up my writing—the restaurant really had to be a family affair. I remember going into mourning, as if I had just lost a best friend. Weekends are crazy in the food service business, especially Saturdays. For many years, we couldn’t even attend weddings we were invited to.
At one point, I fell ill and couldn’t work at that pace, so I opened a gift shop—“Petticoat Junction”—in the rooms adjoining the restaurant. Four years later, Matt added pizza to the menu and needed to put in a dining room, so I gave up the gift shop, and we remodeled the entire building. Then, in 2001, we moved the business about a mile up the road to a larger property, although we kept the name “Moccia’s Train Stop” and the railroad motif. The smaller shop in town became a breakfast, lunch, and ice cream shop. It’s still family-owned.
In the meantime, the boys went to college, studying hospitality management and business administration, and eventually came back to the restaurant. They married and began to have children of their own. (I have 10 grandchildren! When my first granddaughter, Lauren, was born—after my first five grandsons—I hung pink balloons outside the restaurant and donned pink from head to toe before heading to the hospital that day.) After 25 years, Matt and I decided to retire. It was time to pass the reins on to the boys. Matt still goes over to the Train Stop most every day, but I usually don’t join him. I have other things to do!
EN: What led to your involvement with God’s Treasure House?
HM: In 1994, I had begun to feel like I wanted to do more, something outside the restaurant. I knew it had to be something that would be a legacy, something that would make a lasting difference. I wanted the last part of my life to mean the most—to have everlasting value. I guess I wanted to be a good role model for my family. One day, the director of Liberty Ministries, a half-way house for men being released from prison, stopped into the Train Stop. We got to talking, and I asked how I could help his organization. He said he needed women to be penpals to women in prison (there for nonviolent offenses), and I readily volunteered.
At first, I was a little nervous and used my maiden name and a post-office box. Over the following eight years, though, my pen pal and I became good friends. We discovered that she attended the same high school as Matt and that we had mutual friends. I eventually gave her my real name and address. Eventually, Gina divulged her inspiration for creating a faith-based transitional living center for women leaving prison and asked me to help her. The planning and research began, and Gina developed the program before she was released. She had been a travel agent before her incarceration, so she brought a good business sense to the project.
When the time came for my new friend to be released from prison, she and her family made plans to meet me at the Train Stop. In all these years, we had never met, and I had no idea what she looked like. She said I’d know her, though. And, when she walked in carrying two dozen roses, I knew that had to be her! We went right to work developing God’s Treasure House. We needed to secure nonprofit (501c.3) status, choose an advisory board (which included a lawyer), fundraise, and, eventually, scout out a location for our “house.” It took several years before we were ready to open the doors.
EN: Tell us about God’s Treasure House. How does it work? How are you involved?
HM: God’s Treasure House opened officially in 2006, and Gina Stocker became the first executive director. Right now, she also serves as housemother. The name of the ministry is taken from the Bible verse Isaiah 45:3: “I will give you the treasures of darkness; riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel who calls you by name.” We believe that each person, regardless of their failings, is a child of God—a treasure—and we help them overcome the darkness of their past lives.
I am co-director, and my roles are many and varied. Our organization is in its infancy, and fundraising is an important function. (We are researching government grants, but right now, that’s not a source of our income.) Eventually, we would like to purchase our own property for our “Treasure House,” to build equity rather than pay rent. My role is mostly behind the scenes, organizing benefits, such as the annual Banquet and Silent Auction to be held September 20. I also lend support in any way I can. Matt and I opened our restaurant to the group one Sunday last year (when it is normally closed) for a benefit jewelry and handbag show and sale. We made pizzas for the event, and everyone had a great time. For now, the funds raised during these events, together with donations from other benefactors, pay the rent and keep the programs running.
One special project was decorating the house before we opened. It was a labor of love, one that I took on myself. I wanted the women to feel loved and respected unconditionally through a beautiful living environment. It was important that they feel this love the minute they walked in. I thought they would recover more quickly that way. [If you were to visit Helen’s own home, you’d know what a gift decorating God’s Treasure House truly was.]
The prisons target potential clients for our program, and sometimes inmates themselves write to us. Gina screens and selects applicants for admission to the program. They usually have been in a crisis situation of domestic violence, homelessness, or incarceration, and they must really want to participate in this program. Once a client is admitted, we do all we can to meet their spiritual, emotional, and physical needs (and those of their children, who are brought to live with them). The program lasts 9 to 18 months and consists of vocational training/education and classes to enhance parenting and financial management skills.
The women rebuild their lives in a Christian family environment. (All abide by a set of strict rules, and everyone helps with the chores!) They have access to government social services and are mentored by volunteers from the community as they rejoin mainstream society. Many become speakers at prisons and churches, advocating the program to others. To date, we have “graduated” three residents from the program. Four others decided the program was not for them and left before finishing.
EN: In closing, could you describe your typical day?
HM: Hmmm, a typical day. No day is really typical. We have a graduation party to attend today, and Monday, five of my cousins are coming from Germany to stay for a week—I haven’t seen them in 15 years. I’ve been cleaning, planning menus, and cooking. We’re going to take day trips while they’re here. Recently, I had my three (!) granddaughters over for a “tea party.” We all wore “evening gowns.” Framed portraits of the girls in their finery now hang on my kitchen wall. I’m so thrilled to have them!
But, usually, Matt and I wake about 6:30, and I do my exercise routine. Then, we walk 2 to 3 miles. Many days, Matt goes off to the restaurant, and I get busy with whatever projects God’s Treasure House has in store for me that week. Right now, we’re running a “1-Hour Shower” and asking people to donate one hour of their wages to the organization. We also sponsor Saturday morning “Mugs ‘n’ Muffins” fellowship open houses, which give members of the community a chance to spend time with us. As I mentioned earlier, we want to purchase a property, and we also want to hire a housemother, so Gina can concentrate more on directing the ministry.
Believe me, my empty-nesting days are very full and fulfilling! In fact, I want to share with you what I believe I learned to be the secret to meaningful empty nesting: this is to step outside yourself and become a giver—give to your family, your friends, your church, and your community. My pastor summed it up perfectly this morning: “Give to get, die to live, deny to enjoy, and surrender to conquer.”
Editor’s Note: The Women’s Prison Association’s Institute on Women & Criminal Justice offers the following statistics:
Robin C. Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us
© 2008 Spring Mount Communications